Spoiler alert for Harry Potter, lol.
I started reading the Harry Potter books when there were three of them. I went through those three fairly quickly, then read the rest as they came out without re-reading (or seeing any movies), so when I read the final one, it’d been years and years since I’d read those first few. At the end of the last one, Neville pulls a sword out of the Sorting Hat to kill Voldemort and it felt a little … disappointing, a little dues ex machina. I mean, it’s convenient, isn’t it, to suddenly have a sword in your hat? Had Neville hidden it there? But he couldn’t have known Voldemort would summon the hat.
Some time later, I went back and read the entire series one after the other, and that was when I saw it: Harry had pulled the sword out of the hat in Chamber of Secrets which Dumbledore then told him was a thing Gryffindors could do when they were being brave. JK Rowling had planted the key to the climax of her series way back in the second book. Masterful plotting. The kind of masterful plotting they (they being people who make pronouncements of this sort) will tell you requires outlining.
But does it? Not if you use the gin rummy method of pantsing. Full disclosure: I made this up and I’m not JK Rowling. But here’s how I think of plotting as a pantser. Like it’s a game of rummy.
There are a lot of different forms of rummy, so here’s the rules of my game: you get dealt a set of cards. Working from the cards in your hand, you can play matched sets of three or four (e.g. three aces, four kings). You can also put down runs of four or more (e.g. the one, two, three and four of spades). If you can’t play, you have to draw. You win by playing all your cards.
Now let’s translate that to plotting.
In the first third of the book, I’m dealing cards to myself. I can deal any card I want—a character, a setting, a weird habit, a pet, a favorite food. I throw these details out as I’m pantsing along, making up whatever comes to me or seems convenient.
In the second third of the book, I start to arrange these details to make sets and runs. If a character appears three times—that’s a matched set. Note that a deck of cards has no more than four of any number, which is a good warning that matched sets can be overdone. Don’t play all aces.
A run would be when a detail becomes more and more significant through its association with other details. Because your MC prefers beer to wine … Because their dog is named Toto … Because they live in Philadelphia … A detail shouldn’t stand alone.
During the second third of the game, I can draw a new card if I must (i.e. introduce a new detail), but I’m doing so sparingly, only when needed to fill in a set or run I’ve already started. I may make a note of the new detail so I can introduce it earlier during the editing phase.
In the last third of the book, I can only play the cards in my hand. And every card has to be played. Every character, every setting, every oddity must be part of either a set or a run.
Now, I don’t actually map this out, but I do keep it in my head. When I’m trying to figure out what should happen next (because I’m totally pantsing), I look at the cards in my hand. What card needs to be used? Bring that character back on stage. Make that habit or personality trait relevant. Return to the scene of the crime.
If I were pantsing Harry Potter, I would have Harry pull out the sword in Chamber of Secrets because something needs to happen, so I make it up right then and there. New legend! Gryffindors can pull the sword out of the Sorting Hat when they’re being brave. Then I’d file that fact away in my brain as a card that needs to be matched. Years down the road, I’d be writing book seven, trying to figure out how the hell to end this battle, and aha! Here’s a card I still need to play.
It’s reverse foreshadowing, and it can result in endings that are just as satisfying as outlined ones. There’s a line in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe about time travel that says, “There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change.” In a way I can’t exactly explain, that quote describes how reverse foreshadowing works. I don’t have to worry about foreshadowing because the end will naturally arise from what has already happened. The ending was foreshadowed before I knew what I was trying to foreshadow.
So the next time you’re stumped while pantsing, rather than take a random prompt, look at the cards already in your hand. Play one of those. Keep playing them until they’re all gone, and when all the loose ends magically tie together, it might even look like you’d always planned it that way.